PARIS — Different continent, same challenge for the Charlotte Hornets: How to stop Giannis Antetokounmpo?
When the Hornets played Milwaukee in December, the league’s MVP scored 26 points in just 20 minutes in a blowout win for the Bucks.
As they prepare for this afternoon’s rematch in Paris, Charlotte’s French forward Nicolas Batum said there is no obvious answer when it comes to preventing Antetokounmpo from dominating again.
“It’s been two years now that no one has the answer,” Batum said ahead of the NBA’s first regular-season game to be played in France. “He’s becoming more reliable with his shooting and he’ll become an unstoppable machine soon. For me he’s the MVP so far this season.”
Antetokounmpo is coming off his fourth triple-double of the season on Monday night against the Chicago Bulls. In that game he also reached a milestone of 10,000 points.
According to Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer, though, the Greek star hasn’t reached his full potential yet.
“We feel like he’s going to continue to grow and that there’s actually a lot of room for improvement in a lot of different areas,” Budenholzer said Thursday on the sidelines of a team practice. “He’s an incredible player now and we fell like he’s going to get even better.”
Hornets coach James Borrego said stopping Antetokounmpo is only part of the process in containing a team with a season-leading 39-6 record and chasing an eighth straight win.
“Obviously they’re contending for an NBA Championship. They have the reigning MVP and he’s only getting better,” Borrego said. “You can’t (stop him) one-on-one, you’ve got to do it collectively. You’ve got to have two or three bodies around him. When you do that, though, you open up (their) shooting and they have a lot of shooters.”
Khris Middleton, for example, who contributed 24 points against the Bulls as the Bucks improved to 21-2 at home.
By contrast, the Hornets are on a seven-game losing streak and have a 15-30 record.
Playing on a neutral court at Bercy Arena could help level the playing field, though.
“Hopefully the neutral court, that the Bucks haven’t seen before, they don’t shoot it as well,” Borrego said. “New arena, different background, I hope they miss every shot.”
It will be the Bucks second-ever regular season game in Europe, after playing the New York Knicks in London during the 2014-15 season.
Antetokounmpo firmly welcomes the initiative.
“Hopefully this could be something that the NBA does every year, that we play in different countries,” he said. “I think it’s a great move by the NBA, it gives the (fans) accessibility, it gets the people closer to us … Maybe one day we can play a regular season game in Africa. That would be fun, too.”
Merci, Les Amis
Batum said he feels proud to be playing in the first NBA regular season game in Paris, and he knows which French trailblazers to thank for it.
Tony Parker, Rony Turiaf and Boris Diaw for starters. Not to mention the players who came before them: Tariq Abdul-Wahad and Jérôme Moïso.
“(The popularity) started with Tariq and Moïso, but above all it’s really Tony and Boris who made French basketball so popular,” Batum said. “And there’s the generation behind with players like Evan (Fournier), Rudy (Gobert), Sekou (Doumbouya) and Frank (Ntilikina).
“We’re really trying to raise the French flag high in the U.S. and do so with pride.”